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‘Johnny Baseball’ steps to the plate in Orono

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‘Johnny Baseball’ steps to the plate in Orono photo by Tom Mikotowicz
New musical offers different take on ‘The Curse of the Bambino’

ORONO – It’s always a welcome surprise when two of your (seemingly) disparate interests come together in an unexpected way.

The University of Maine at Orono’s Summer Music Theatre Festival is currently in the process of building one of those improbable marriages with their upcoming production of “Johnny Baseball,” a musical created around the history of the Boston Red Sox.

That’s right – a musical about the Red Sox.

The show opens on Aug. 3 and runs through Aug. 12, with Friday and Saturday performances starting at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees starting at 2. The production will be mounted at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus; tickets are $14 for adults and $7 for children and are available for purchase at the School of Performing Arts website (umaine.edu/spa) or at the door.

Anyone steeped in Red Sox lore knows all about the alleged “Curse of the Bambino.” It stems from the fact that after then-owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, the Red Sox went from dominant (championships in 1912, 1915-16 and 1918) to downtrodden (86 years without a World Series victory).

“Johnny Baseball” tells the story of that curse from a different perspective. It traces the Curse through the interactions of three people: fictional right-handed pitcher Johnny O’Brien (a member of the 1919 Red Sox team), African-American blues singer Daisy Wyatt and – of course – Babe Ruth. The action flashes between episodes from O’Brien’s life and Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Although the common belief is that the team is cursed because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the musical takes the position that it is because they were not yet willing to hire black players. The story begins in 1918 and revolves around fictional phenom O'Brien, who gains the legendary name Johnny Baseball because of his throwing talent. Johnny, while out nightclubbing with Babe Ruth, falls in love with Daisy, but their relationship goes awry due to the pressure exerted by the Red Sox management for Johnny to not be seen in public with her.

The SMTF production has been a long time in the works.

“We’ve been planning for about a year and a half,” said director Tom Mikotowicz. “In November of 2010, I was at a conference in New Haven and met Richard Dresser. We got to talking, I told him about [the festival] and he expressed interest.

“We’ve been working toward this ever since.”

It’s an exciting opportunity for the burgeoning Summer Music Theatre Festival, now in its third season. However, doing a new piece such as this one presents a unique set of challenges. For one, doing something new means there’s no blueprint; you’re working without a map.

“They have added songs, removed songs and revamped the story [since the 2010 production of the show],” Mikotowicz said. “The show kept changing and growing. We’ve found solutions as we’ve gone along.”

In addition, there’s a power to this play’s message that you don’t always find in musical theater.

“A new play like this represents new cultural values,” said Mikotowicz. “With the premise involving players of color, it immediately required an interracial cast. We searched locally for talent as well as attending New England regional auditions and bringing in professionals from Massachusetts and New York.

“Casting the right people was a challenge. When you’re dealing with some historic reference points, you want to address them as truthfully as possible.”

Mikotowicz went on to discuss the importance of producing shows such as “Johnny Baseball” here in Maine.

“There’s not a lot of diversity in Maine,” he said. “It’s important to do work like this. The fact that the show celebrates diversity and reflects 21st century values makes working on a project like this very worthwhile. Plus, you’ve got guest professionals working alongside local talent.

“It’s a good mix of people who also care about the messages of the show. Everyone has demonstrated a major commitment to the production.”

When all is said and done, it’s a wonderful opportunity for all involved. The playwrights get to develop their work further. The University of Maine gets the prestige of working with quality new work. The performers get a chance to have a direct hand in the growth of a new play. And we as an audience get a chance to see something never before seen.

“We are truly honored to be allowed to be a part of the trial run of “Johnny Baseball,”” said Mikotowicz.

And hey – it’s a musical about the Red Sox. How can you go wrong?

An interview with playwright Richard Dresser

Richard Dresser wrote the book for “Johnny Baseball.” Dresser is the author of such noted works as “Better Days,” “Below the Belt” and “Rounding Third.” He also wrote the book for the Broadway musical “Good Vibrations.”

Mr. Dresser was nice enough to share some of his thoughts about this new show, his process, producing the show here in Maine and – of course – the Boston Red Sox.

The Maine Edge - What kind of process do you go through when creating a show like this one? And how long has this project been in the works?

Richard Dresser - I started kicking around this idea with my two collaborators, Robert and Willie Reale (both Yankee fans), in the fall of 2003. It followed the tragic (or heroic, depending on your loyalties) home run by Aaron Boone which ended the Red Sox season. We started talking about the Red Sox Curse and what a terrific idea it would be for a musical. Then, when the Red Sox won in 2004, we initially thought the idea was dead.

But in talking about it we realized that the Red Sox had provided us with a wonderfully emotional ending to our musical. It wouldn’t just be about pain and suffering, there would be redemption. That’s when we started to talk about it more seriously. And then, when the beer was gone and we could put it off no longer, we started to write. It’s been a long and absolutely absorbing process.

So many musicals are based on movies or other source material, and it’s easy to see why. A musical with a truly original story is a major challenge and will take important years off your life.

TME - Sports in general haven't traditionally been represented a lot on the stage; what inspired you to take on this kind of subject matter (i.e. baseball) through musical theater?

RD - We wanted to find a story with profound suffering, monstrous greed, unexpected redemption and exciting uniforms. The Red Sox fit the bill perfectly. Also, since the three of us are baseball fans and on opposite sides of the Red Sox/Yankees divide, we all had a deeply personal connection to the story. Plus, there would be a healthy tension in the work and only occasional physical violence.

TME - The show received a production at ART a while back - what sequence of events led to you and “Johnny Baseball” becoming a part of UMaine's Summer Music Theatre Festival?

RD - Following our production at ART we have been rewriting and refining the show. Musicals, of course, are never finished. I met Tom Mikotowicz at a New England Theater Conference in New Haven. He knew about the show and when I described the work we were doing on it he expressed interest in a production in Maine. We are all very excited about this opportunity as it offers a chance to further develop the work and there is no place in the universe better than Maine.

TME - How big a part did your Massachusetts upbringing play in the gestation of the idea for this show? Do you consider yourself a Red Sox fanatic or a casual fan - or did you simply draw from the passion for the team that must have surrounded you? And did you connect with specific iterations of the team, say the Impossible Dream squad of 1967 or the 1975 World Series team?

RD - My upbringing in Massachusetts was a huge part of the development of the show. I grew up passionately following the Red Sox and actually would have played third base for them except for a puzzling lack of major league talent. But the long, stormy, passionate love affair of New Englanders for the Red Sox was where the show began.

My personal favorite Red Sox team was in 1967 because they came out of nowhere, and after such a long dry spell it hardly seemed possible they were playing in the World Series. The silver lining to their seventh game defeat in the World Series is that if they had won there would be no “Johnny Baseball” musical. I think all of New England can be thankful for that.

TME – And finally - what's the next step for “Johnny Baseball”?

RD - We are in the Village Theatre’s Originals Festival in Seattle in early August. This is a highly regarded national festival of new musicals. Then it will appear at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, in mid-January, a special time to be in Minnesota. We are eager to see how our show plays outside New England. And following that we have plans which are simply too monumental to be discussed except in code with secret associates.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 August 2012 12:25

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